IMPACT: Often portrayed as a monolithic and medieval system of Islamic law, sharia has been used by anti-Muslim groups and politicians to argue against First Amendment protections for Americans who are Muslim. Critics express concerns that anti-sharia campaigns contribute to Islamophobia and infringe on American Muslims’ right to religious freedom.
Sharia is an Arabic word and an Islamic religious term. In recent years, the word has been employed by anti-Muslim organizations that claim Muslims want to “impose” it on Western societies.
Sharia literally means “path to life-giving water” in Arabic and is commonly referred to as “Islamic law.” Not a single book or legal code, sharia is better understood as “the idea of God’s law,” and “refers to the way God advises Muslims to live.”
Fiqh, “understanding,” is the human interpretation of sharia based on the Islamic sources of revelation (Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s example). Thus, there is no universal consensus on how sharia should be interpreted and there is much internal diversity among Islamic legal rulings. For more on sharia, fiqh, and Islamic law, see the work of Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes.
For Muslims, as for those of other faiths, notions of divine law guide both religious practice (e.g. prayer) and ethics (e.g. how to treat one’s neighbor). In the United States, Islamic law can be consulted in civil cases involving Muslim litigants, such as those involving marriage, divorce, or the probation of an Islamic will. These types of cases occur in other religious communities in the United States, just as Judaic law (Halacha) can be consulted in cases involving Jewish Americans.
A common myth about sharia is that it is the law of the land in majority-Muslim countries. Legal systems differ from country to country, and, as Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes notes, they have been heavily influenced by European colonialism (read more here.) Many controversial laws in majority-Muslim countries, like the law banning women from driving in Saudi Arabia, have no basis in sharia.
Contrary to common perceptions, Muslims are not duty-bound to impose sharia on non-Muslims. In fact, Islamic law by definition specifically pertains to Muslims, and it protects the right of other faith communities to live in accordance with their own laws.
Amid a concerted effort by anti-Muslim groups to engender public concern about sharia, legislation was introduced in over half of American states to ban sharia or “foreign law.” The architect of these bills was David Yerushalmi, an attorney for anti-Muslim organizations. The grassroots anti-Muslim group, ACT for America, run by Brigitte Gabriel, campaigned for the bans’ adoption. As of 2017, ten states have passed laws banning “foreign law.” In 2012 and 2016, opposition to “foreign law” was included in the Republican Party platform.
Anti-Muslim organizations and commentators portray sharia as a monolithic Islamic legal system that is opposed to human rights, religious freedom, women’s rights, democracy, and the U.S. Constitution. This characterization of sharia allows anti-Muslim groups to argue that Islam is ‘not a religion’ or ‘not only a religion,’ but also a ‘totalitarian political system.’ In June 2017, ACT for America organized marches “against sharia” in over two-dozen U.S. cities.
Groups like Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy inaccurately claim that Muslims are working to institute sharia in the United States and “destroy western civilization from within” by means of “stealth jihad” or “civilization jihad.” Mosque construction and Muslims’ involvement in civil society are cast by anti-Muslim groups as evidence of “creeping sharia.” Unreliable surveys and studies have been used by anti-Muslim groups and politicians like Donald Trump to claim that most Muslims want to impose “barbaric” laws in America.
Some media outlets, as well as Republican politicians and government officials, have echoed the anti-Muslim groups’ discourse about sharia. These include Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson, John Bennett, Donald Trump, and Steve Bannon. For some, renouncing sharia should be a condition for citizenship, running for political office, or serving on the Supreme Court.
Critics say that these anti-sharia laws are “a solution in search of a problem.” Academics and legal scholars argue that the threat of sharia usurping the U.S. Constitution is a non-existent one. Opponents have criticized anti-sharia campaigns as “clear anti-Muslim bias.”